Monday, 11 January 2016


So I am sure everyone has at least one hellish tale of a trip through an airport; perhaps running to make a connection, maybe the stress of a security queue much longer than you anticipated, or even the stomach churning realisation that your luggage really has gone missing somewhere between check in and arrival at destination. I have experienced all of the above - the lost luggage serendipitously happening on our honeymoon when we stood, bereft, in Mexico, in only the clothes we travelled in and learned that our luggage had mysteriously gone to Glasgow instead of Cancun. Stressed in airports? I could have written the book.

But on the very last day of 2015 I experienced an airport adventure which made me question what I may have done in a previous life to insult the god of international travel.

I should probably rewind a bit to state that my arrival in the UK on 20th December was also not without incident. I forget how spoiled we are in Adelaide to have a small, quiet, clean, efficient airport which generally processes arriving passengers within 30 minutes (from stepping off an international flight to walking out the front doors, luggage in hand and immigration cleared).

On arrival into London Heathrow after an unexpectedly long flight from Kuala Lumpur I was fairly dazed and confused anyway. That flight is usually no longer than 12 hours maximum, but since the shooting down of MH17 and the various war zones and airspace issues since, the route has changed to avoid flying directly over various countries, with the result being that this leg (with Malaysia Airlines at least) is now a gruelling 14.5 hours.

So, we landed at around 6am on a Sunday morning, I wondered, in a moment of utter craziness, whether this might be a quieter time for getting through immigration at Terminal 4. Ha! I had forgotten that this airport never sleeps. There is no such thing as a quiet time. HERDS of people were trying to queue to get into other queues in order to get through the official UK border. Queues to get into queues….how marvellously British….

I have the kind of passport that can go through the electronic visa machine thing (I believe that is the technical name) but the queue for the 2 working machines was longer than the queue for the old fashioned person-in-booth deal so I went for the latter. 25 minutes later I was finally at the luggage carousel, but my luggage was not. The belt was not even moving, in fact the flight was not even listed yet, although the crew on board had told us which belt we could expect to use. I switched my phone on and settled in to wait.

Another 20 minutes passed before the luggage belt began to move and then another 20 minutes before my luggage appeared, I breathed a massive sigh of relief, this was not my first rodeo with the whole ‘lost luggage’ ordeal. In fact Malaysia Airlines have twice in 2 years lost a piece of my parents’ luggage on the same route…but that’s a whole other story.

Luggage finally obtained, I make my way through to arrivals where my mother is doing an impression of “most excited person in the room” (very convincing). We both burst into tears. I mistakenly think the ordeal is over…but not so…

We exit the airport and make towards the payment machines for the parking ticket. There are two machines and two queues. Mom gets to the front of one queue and the machine gives a message to say it is not accepting cash payments. Mom subsequently gets in the other queue, makes it to the front where the machine eats her money and refuses to issue a ticket. We call for assistance and a man with a walkie talkie duly turns up and opens the machine and after an agonising wait manages to get it working. Finally, I think, we can get out of this hellish place!

Not so. Gridlock on the car park means we sit in the car for at least another 20 minutes waiting for someone to move enough to let us into the gridlock pattern. From landing to leaving the airport took at least 2 tortuous hours. This experience made me consider one of the most glaring differences between the UK and Australia, namely the difference in population size and the impact this has on infrastructure (or most pointedly, failure of infrastructure to cope). The same amount of people live in London as live in the whole of Australia, which gives you some idea of the context.

Anyway, with this experience in mind, on returning to Heathrow on December 31st (ironically, my birthday) we arrived with a good 3.5 hours to spare before my flight. Little did I know I would need every moment of this time and more patience than it is possible to muster.

I have never done the trip to/from UK/Australia on my own, I actually don’t mind travelling on my own, I just kind of zone out and get on with it, but the bit I hadn’t factored in as being difficult was the aftermath of the awful goodbye. It never gets any easier letting go for a massive amount of time, even when you know the exact dates when you will see each other again, it still sucks. Usually I have Stu with me to calm me down fairly quickly and rationalise the whole thing. Not so this time.

So, I join the queue for baggage drop in absolute floods of tears, snot pouring from my nose, hair sticking to my face, looking like a deranged woman. Bewilderingly, the queue for bag drop (online check in) is longer and moving slower than the regular check in queue. Only one desk is open for bag drop and a family of 8 with around 20 bags are currently holding up the process. I try and just stay quiet in the queue, using a multitude of tissues to stem the crying, breathing deeply. A small child behind me remarks to his mother “that lady is broken, mommy” – quite right, I am a hot mess right now.

The longest queue for bag drop finally gets me to the desk where I point out it’s my birthday and the crew member assesses my tear stained face and decides I am clearly too much of a risk for any kind of perk/upgrade. Oh well, I tried.

Next I take an elevator down to what I can only describe as a parallel universe level of the airport that only exists if you are emotional and off your head on prescription drugs (for a cold). Signs have directed me to “level -2” where strangely, given the footprint of the floor above it (departures) and the floor below it (arrivals) the elevator opens into a room the size of a tesco express and with about the same level of shit-togetherness. ALL the tourists who have been to London in the last week or so have congregated and are trying to claim the VAT back on goods they have bought. I want (as a non-UK resident) to claim the VAT back on my new Macbook. That’s 1 item. Most of these people are clutching REAMS of receipts and bags and bags of expensive handbags and shoes. I sigh. This place is the equivalent of platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross. It only exists if you really believe it does. I am also sure it is staffed by muggle born wizards who can’t get a job at the Ministry of Magic.

A man/muggle spots me and decides I don’t look particularly touristy and helpfully tells me I can do the VAT refund thing after security and avoid the queues. Fabulous, I think, I will do that.

So I approach security. Man, this has changed since I last flew out of the UK. I am now addressed by a freaky hologram and have to navigate a bunch of self-service checkout style machines to get rid of excess fluids and organise my belongings. This is BEFORE the queues for the security checks. The hologram is barking things about laptops and ipads being out of bags…

After the zig zag through the weird machines there actually isn’t much of a queue at the security screening itself. I start to feel like this is all ok. But then I beep as I go through the doorway screen thing (technical name) and so they decide to swab my shoes. And they find a trace of explosives.


Yes. There is apparently a trace of explosives on my shoes. So now I have to go be frisked, 360 degree scanned and swabbed again all over. And meanwhile all my worldly goods are sitting in the trays waiting to be claimed by anyone over the other side of the room.

A very nice person asks whether I have been around Christmas crackers, with the sincerity of a priest. Why, yes, I believe so, seeing as its FUCKING CHRISTMAS. Apparently, crackers can give a residue off which reads as explosives on airport swab testers. You have been warned, people. (Australian readers, I mean bon-bons not eating crackers, that would just be mental).     

Finally I am through security and head to collect my bags, except one of them has been stopped for a thorough search (clearly they think I am a terrorist now). I patiently wait while the man digs everything out of my small hand luggage suitcase and raises an eyebrow at the contents, (monster munch, frazzles, after eights, yes I have a problem, ok!?). And finally I am on my way. 
To the VAT refund counter. This one is not staffed by muggle born wizards but by stony faced arseholes (SFAs).

Weirdly, the same amount of tourists brandishing receipts are queueing here as they were at platform 9 ¾. I spend 30 minutes listening to an SFA requesting to see each individual item on a 6 foot long receipt to a Chinese tourist and then conversing via google translate regarding paperwork. It is laborious stuff. 

Eventually I get the stamp I need on the form to claim the VAT back. Where do I take this now? (I enquire). Travelex (he barks). Right oh.

To the Travelex stand. Guess what? Fucking huge queue of the same people who were at both Platform 9 ¾ and the SFA outlet. I glance nervously at my watch. There is now only 1 hour until I am supposed to be at my gate. 20 minutes later I am still in the queue and have not moved and 1 of the 2 guys staffing this stand is just leaving for the end of his shift. Then, as I get to the front of the queue, a cheeky motherfucker asks me if she can queue jump because her plane is about to leave and she only has one item and being a spineless British person I smile pleasantly and say “yes of course” and then SCOWL at her back and hope she misses her flight and chokes on the Toblerone sticking out of her bag. Bitch.

So I finally, by some kind of miracle, get to the desk with my form. I present it with a sense of relief that this admin nightmare is nearly over. The guy looks at it and says "We don't process these forms."

What. The. Actual. Fuck?

Turns out (though no one up to this point had known their arse from their elbow in this process), that when the store in question gave me the form they should have also given me a pre paid envelope in which to return the form to them once it was stamped. The travelex guy pointed to a large post box directly behind me which was allegedly there for this very reason. Sadly I was not carrying either an envelope or a UK stamp so at this very moment I realised that a) I was going to have to post the bastard form back to the UK once I landed in Adelaide and b) I could have spent the last half an hour at the champagne bar.

Cursing Heathrow for the sack of fucking weasels it truly is (and not for the first time), I did the only sensible thing with half an hour remaining until I needed to be at the gate. I marched straight to the champagne bar, ordered a glass and then burst into tears in a combination of residual sadness and utter frustration. Yes, Heathrow, you truly broke me with your mad, bureaucratic, psychotic, shitheap of a set up. On my birthday. What a wanker.

Cheers, Heathrow, you utter shitbag.

The kindly barman asked me what was up and I gave him the short version, namely "birthday, goodbyes, nonsense" whilst trying to breathe and speak through that annoying bit of crying that makes you wheeze and hiccup and generally resemble a 2 year old having a tantrum. By this point I seriously gave zero fucks what I looked like and was just desperate to get on the plane and on with the show. 

This story must end on a positive note after all that whining (!) - a lovely man at the bar had overheard my tale of woe and paid my bill, as well as sending me a second glass of champagne and wishing me a happy new year. Humans can occasionally be awesome. He didn't even want a conversation, just quietly raised his glass to mine and nodded. I think it may have been Jack Nicholson (or that could be the mix of high emotion, prescription drugs and hastily skulled champagne).

Anyway, happy new year one and all, more blog posts to follow about UK christmas when I get chance.